Jackie & Ryan opens with picturesque images of pastoral America as a busker, Ryan (Ben Barnes), train hops with guitar case in tow, suggesting a modern-day Jack London character who views this itinerant lifestyle as his muse. The sequence emits a rustic romanticism mirrored in the film’s best moments, of a fleeting connection between Ryan and Jackie (Katherine Heigl), a faded country-music star with whom he has a chance encounter in her scenic Utah hometown. Director Ami Canaan Mann resists raising their courtship to the level of mawkish bombast by refusing to render them as sudden soulmates destined for a happily-ever-after fadeout. Instead, the two musicians enter each other’s lives at a crucial moment and simply help to push one another forward. The film, however, comes undone in its clumsy attempts to transform this story into a parable of economic distress.
When Jackie is inevitably coaxed back on stage for the first time in a long while, she first pauses to deliver an impassioned monologue about the choices people make when they don’t feel they have much to choose from. Supposedly this describes her own plight. In the midst a divorce and custody battle over her adolescent daughter, Lia (Emily Alyn Lind), Jackie’s credit cards are maxed and she’s reduced to living with her mother, Miriam (Sheryl Lee), in a rundown home they can’t afford to fix. Except, it turns out, Jackie has been sitting on a luxurious Manhattan condo, debating whether she should hold onto it and return to New York and her glam lifestyle or if she should sell it and remain at home. This piece of convenient plotting not only gives her an easy out from this supposed fiscal adversity under which she toils, it also completely undermines the idea that she doesn’t have much to choose from. In this context, her singing of the traditional folk dirge “Down on Penny’s Farm” plays as painful misappropriation. You wonder what those “good people” in the audience might think if they knew she had a chunk of pricey real estate tucked away.
This is illustrative of the film’s insultingly simplistic portrayal of economic hardship. When Jackie wonders if Ryan ever stops to consider how he got to where he is, he replies that the only question he asks himself is where he’s going next, as if simply following one’s passion to the ends of the earth is enough to sustain his or her livelihood. That starry-eyed philosophy might have been passable had Jackie & Ryan simply been a homespun fairy tale of the titular characters’ enjoyably ephemeral courtship. As the mournful lament of recession-era America, however, it merely comes across as make-believe.